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Up in the Air

Covid Stumped Even the Best Writer of Science Mysteries

In David Quammen’s books, intrepid scientists hunt down viruses and avert crises. The story of Covid-19 offers no such resolution.

Science writing is a peculiar genre, conceivable only in a society so highly technologized that much of what it knows about the world falls outside the comprehension of the vast majority of its members. Most of us cough and sputter through our messy, meaty lives, taking it on faith that somewhere in the institutional ether a high priesthood is laboring on our behalf. In dustless rooms they are experimenting and hypothesizing away, and, in the movies at least, triumphantly filling chalkboards with long and incomprehensible equations. Understanding their efforts requires either years of patient study or the help of able translators.

The best science writers do far more than dumb it down. They render the abstract concrete. They whittle the esoteric into acceptably familiar shapes. They deliver some tangible sense of the breadth and gravity of the questions being asked, and they do it all while telling good and gripping stories. David Quammen is one of the unquestionable masters of this art. His curiosity is wide-ranging, but, over the last decade, his interests and his books have zeroed in on the little matter of infectious diseases. He has been specifically interested in the ones called zoonotic, meaning they initially resided in an animal host and later leaked over into humans. Such “spillover” (the title of Quammen’s 2012 book on the subject) has been occurring at an alarming rate in recent years. New infectious diseases used to show up every few centuries. These days, with SARS, MERS, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Marburg, Hendra, Nipah, Zika, Q fever, monkeypox, Covid-19, and a whole lot of others you’ve probably never heard of, it’s every few years. Something, obviously, has changed.

Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus
by David Quammen
Simon & Schuster, 416 pp., $29.99

In Spillover and in his books about the origins of Ebola and AIDS, Quammen had the narrative advantage of reporting from picturesque and at times risky locales. No matter how complex the subject matter, it’s easy enough to tell a good story about tracking gorillas through the forest of northeastern Gabon or trapping macaques in a Sufi shrine in Bangladesh. The hunt for the virus’s source provides a built-in mystery, with Quammen’s cast of (almost invariably Western) epidemiologists, virologists, molecular phylogeneticists, et al. acting as bold and intrepid detectives. “They are our sentries,” he writes in Spillover, a select advance guard committed to protecting the species from enemies too small to see and too complex for most of us to understand. And they do their jobs well: With the glaring exception of AIDS, the outbreaks he has written about have largely been contained.

Quammen began reporting his latest, Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus, in January 2021. SARS-CoV-2, the bug that causes Covid, had already arrived. At the time, it was still killing as many as 4,000 Americans each day. Quam­men wisely stayed home. The bulk of the book thus comes from interviews conducted via Zoom with 95 subjects, many of them familiar from his previous books—virologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, evolutionary biologists, disease ecologists, the odd public health official. If keeping a reader’s interest while explaining the significance of furin cleavage sites in the spike protein of a coronavirus is tricky enough, the Zoom constraint introduced an additional literary obstacle. In one particularly poignant moment, desperate for a bit of color, he asks a source to pick up his laptop and show him around his office. It’s not quite Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room, or that terrifying Georges Perec novel without any es, but it surely wasn’t easy going.

As anxiety-provoking as Quammen’s earlier work may have been, the genre ultimately offers reassurance. His books tell updated colonial adventure tales in which the hyperrational denizens of well-ordered laboratories dip into the teeming chaos of the global south and return with—if no cures for human misery—the soothing balm of knowledge. “The purpose of this book is not to make you more worried,” he writes toward the end of Spillover, but “to make you more smart.” This time, however, we know in advance exactly what intelligence is worth. Expertise failed. Institutions failed. Despite all its resources and brainpower, the wealthiest society on the planet catastrophically failed to protect its own. This certainly raises questions, but they are not the sort that Quammen tends to ask. The strange tension that animates Breathless is hence impelled by an evasion. Quammen has to work extra hard to pump oxygen into his account of the pandemic—a version that pushes most people’s experiences of the calamity to the margins. The tragedies that for many of us defined the last three years become a series of unfortunate footnotes to another story about smart people doing brave things.

To get there, Quammen pulls out all the tricks. His metaphors hype the drama of pinning down the virus. A novel virus, he writes, can tear through unexposed populations “like a high-caliber bullet through marbled sirloin.” He explains only as much as he needs to, leaving out everything that would drag at the pace. If the information he is after appears in an obscure scientific blog post or in the weeds of a preprint that to most humans might as well be written in Linear B, Quammen is never so clumsy as to merely cite it. He starts in with the backgrounds and quirks of the scientists who wrote it and tells you what they were doing at the time. The difficult and esoteric information he needs to convey gets subsumed in narrative, like a pill hidden in a spoonful of peanut butter: You don’t notice that you’ve swallowed anything until it’s already taken effect.

It helps that so many of Quammen’s sources have done time in “the field,” which allows him to liven things up with snippets from their swashbuckling pasts. (“At one dicey moment in central Zaire…”) When they have endured quieter careers, he has to reach. One epidemiologist, not evidently all that edgy, is introduced as having studied at “NYU in that edgy time just after the 1960s ended at Altamont Speedway and Kent State,” though she is not alleged to have been present at either. Later, Quam­men devotes a page to a fearless “crusty legend” of a virologist named Bob Swanepoel, solely in order to discuss the contents of a paper Swanepoel recommended, one written by three presumably less interesting French scientists. But the point is what the paper said.

It is to Quammen’s credit as a craftsman that most of this is seamless. You don’t notice the wires unless you’re looking for them. Quickly, a narrative begins to tug you along, one that lacks all of the markers that shaped the pandemic for most of us. There are no refrigerator trucks of corpses idling here, no maskless ranters spitting at chain-store employees, no one denied sick days, no bizarre and debilitating symptoms that seem to never go away. Aside from the periodic refrain, “Meanwhile, people were dying,” there is no death either, no outrage, and no grief. Quammen’s 95 sources—“my Greek chorus,” he calls them—are a fairly comfortable bunch.

Breathless is nonetheless aptly named. The book moves like a Steven Soder­bergh film, fast and urgent, fascinated by the process of scientific inquiry and by the threads connecting the networked worlds that it depicts. The hours leading up to the publication of the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s full genome are relayed in nail-biting detail. (“I call Zhang and he’s on an airplane … and I say, ‘Zhang, we HAVE to release this! We HAVE to release the sequence.’”) Later, the collaborative drafting of a journal article—from emails to conference call to “sentences, scraps of text, provisional paragraphs, shared through Google Docs”—stretches over 20 pages, becoming an event of uncommon drama, one so engaging and rich with anecdotal sidetracks that it’s easy to forget what exactly is moving the plot.

But what exactly is moving the plot? Quammen cites William Faulkner as an influence, but the effect is more nouveau roman: The chronology skips back and forth, details accrue, and only slowly do you notice that something is at stake, something never quite acknowledged. Breathless’s subtitle, The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus, at once vague and misleading, doesn’t help. Quammen, even vaguer, doesn’t either. Why would a writer so gifted at producing clarity allow something as basic as the subject of his book to remain murky for so long?

He waits until the final chapter to explain himself. “This is a book about the science of SARS-CoV-2,” he writes. But Quam­men is in fact almost entirely uninterested in most of what counts as “science.” He doesn’t bother with how the virus passes from one human body to another, what it does when it gets there, how it might be stopped. He pauses for only a relatively cursory discussion of the various pharmaceutical interventions, and an equally hurried discussion of vaccines. The book is not about the public health measures, hopefully at least science-adjacent, taken and not taken to defeat the virus. It is in fact quite careful to avoid them, insisting on a sharp distinction between the tidy realm of scientific data and the grubbiness of politics.

He won’t say it, so I will: Breathless dramatizes the search for the origins of SARS-CoV-2, focusing mainly on molecular epidemiology. In other words, it focuses on the hunt at its most abstract, with the virus expressed as a sequence of many thousands of coded nucleotide bases. This is not a naturally thrilling story. If it was, Quammen wouldn’t have to work so hard. Only slowly do you realize that nearly all of his narrative choices—what he includes and what he leaves out—are motivated by an argument that he never makes explicit: a defense of scientific authority and institutional legitimacy. He takes pains to explain the basics of recombination in quickly evolving RNA viruses because he wants, when he gets to them, to convince you that the various “dark stories” about lab leaks and manufactured pathogens are almost certainly wrong. He wants you to know just enough to understand that “herd immunity” is hooey, that taking hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin is a bad idea, that Moderna’s vaccine is your friend, and that most scientists, the ones he knows anyway, are smart and brave and virtuous.

It’s as if an invisible interlocutor is hovering just outside the margins. Mainly it’s shouting from the right, offering sinister conspiracy theories and sullying the authority of experts. You’ve surely heard it on Fox. If you hadn’t, Quammen’s narrative choices would be incomprehensible. But Quammen rarely acknowledges it. To do so would be to admit that there is a polemic hiding here, and that the narrative he is shaping, ostensibly rooted in the pure pursuit of data, is shot through and through with politics. It’s what the recently departed philosopher Bruno Latour would have called blackboxing: Quammen is so focused on producing certain outcomes that he cannot let himself see the work that he himself has put into their creation. As Latour would have pointed out, by insisting on a fictionally sharp distinction between the work that scientists do and the inescapable impurities of the political, Quammen deprives himself of any tools that might have allowed him to make scientific truths matter to those who are not already convinced that they do.

In the meantime, another drama is unfolding in these pages, also unacknowledged by the author: a vivid fable about the interconnectedness of experts, scientists, and bureaucrats employed by institutes and research centers backed by universities, governments, and militaries. (Somewhere beneath the stage, presumably, private capital and corporate profits circulate in hidden pipes.) Quammen describes a rarefied sphere of expertise where knowledge leaps between servers as a frictionless vector, from lab results to peer-reviewed publication via video conference, email, and text. Geography registers only as the difference between time zones.

Breathless is, among other things, an impressive feat of world-building. It describes a bright technocratic utopia peopled by the highest strata of the professional, middle-class cognoscenti. If there are conflicts, if there is jockeying for position and the sort of territorial pettiness that marks so much academic intercourse, we never see it. With the exception of one irresponsible team of Indian researchers and a single narcissistic Frenchman, everyone here—or at least everyone with a doctorate—behaves impeccably, united by their unwavering fealty to the spirit of scientific inquiry.

It would be easy to miss that among a few humble postdocs and grad students, Quammen’s Greek chorus is staffed by some very powerful people, collectively controlling budgets of billions of dollars and cultural capital to match. Reality, Quammen writes at the end, can only be grasped “in the round,” by combining “diverse points of view.” This is certainly true. Yet all but 10 of his 95 sources are based in Europe, North America, or Australia. As many are based at Princeton as in the entire continent of Africa. The reality they present is inevitably particular. Together they offer not diversity but a mapping of institutional power, which is distributed as unequally—and along more or less the same racial and geographic lines—in the sciences as it is in every other realm of modern life.

If this puts Quammen’s wariness of politics in perspective, it also makes his uncritical adulation of his sources difficult, at times, to stomach. Breathless does not aspire to be a work of hard-hitting investigative journalism, and it need not be one. But fawning is rarely a good look. The cheerleading rings loudest whenever Anthony Fauci, “America’s most trusted disease scientist,” crosses the page. Fauci has “so much steel in his spine and antifreeze in his veins,” Quammen writes, that “he could just as well have bossed the Gambino crime family, if he weren’t so moral.” Quammen’s interview tactics are no less embarrassing. I could think of a lot of worthwhile questions to ask Fauci, who, however enormous the challenges he faced, did help preside over a disaster that cost more than one million American lives. But Quammen is too much in awe to interrupt him: “Keep talking, I thought. I didn’t want to break his stride.” Later: “‘Yeah,’ I said admiringly.”

Elsewhere, he tells a secondhand version of Fauci’s account of the creation of the Vaccine Research Center (part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which Fauci has directed since 1984). “Around the midpoint of his presidency,” Quammen writes, Bill Clinton “got very interested in the imperative of conquering AIDS.” He asked Fauci what he needed “to really solve this problem once and for all.” When Fauci answered that he wanted to create a center focused on developing an AIDS vaccine, Clinton looked to his chief of staff and said imperiously, “Leon, just get this done.” It’s a cute little story if you find power enchanting—and unless you remember that, by that time, the AIDS pandemic had been devastating gay communities for a decade and a half. For more than half of that period, AIDS activists had been so enraged by Fauci’s inaction that they routinely called him a murderer.

Quammen ends his story on an ambiguous note. SARS-CoV-2 likely had no single origin. Zoonosis is not a whodunit, it turns out, but, as one of his sources wrote, a “permanent process of evolution, adaptation and selection.” The virus appears to have spilled over into humans in two independent instances, probably originating in bats and infecting some unfortunate intermediary species that had the bad luck to be captured and sold in the wild game section of the Huanan wholesale market in Wuhan. “The scientists can tell us a lot,” Quammen writes, “but they can’t tell us everything.” Knowledge is always fragmentary and provisional. One day, if we’re lucky, we’ll learn more.

Indeed, in science, as in writing, what gets left out makes up more than half of any story. Most of the work is separating signal from noise, and determining which counts as which. For someone so skilled at the narrative arts, at the manifold forms of sleight of hand that turn dull facts into an engaging yarn, Quammen is oddly dismissive of any explanation that can be deemed “merely a narrative.” He insists on verbatim quotes—no tidying sources’ grammar for flow—because, he writes, “I share scientists’ respect for the sanctity of data.” He tries hard to be rigorous and, when he can be, is honest about what he’s jumping over, whether it’s the difference between an RT-PCR and an ELISA test (“Let’s skip that explanation and move on.”) or the manifold malfeasances and social inequities that caused so many unnecessary deaths: “those are topics for other books.”

Fair enough. But I couldn’t help but notice that, when it comes to bigger issues, Quammen averts his attention according to a predictable pattern. When the questions he is asking threaten to expose lines of power—and of profit—he almost invariably, and hurriedly, drops them. He concludes a section on vaccines with a brief note about “deplorable” disparities in access: By late 2021, only 4 percent of people in poorer countries had received at least one dose. “Pfizer and BioNTech and Moderna are for-profit companies, after all,” Quammen sighs. “The conundrum of intellectual property rights versus public health, common good versus the expectations of venture capitalists … is a monster I’ll only nod at here, forgive me, and keep walking.”

Well, no. Two sentences later Quammen finds room to mention the “vast starter contributions” made by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to organizations established “to cope with this vast dilemma.” He neglects to add that, however much money his foundation may have thrown at solutions, Bill Gates is also very much the problem: Gates has consistently and effectively fought to torpedo any campaign for vaccine equity that threatens monopoly control of pharmaceutical patents. Quam­men’s attempt at disavowal does not help him avoid a political conundrum. It digs him in.

There are other monsters Quammen does not even nod at. It’s hard to say much about zoonotic spillover without tracing the web of relations that connects humans to other animals, wild and domestic. In some depth, Quammen explores the global trade in pangolins, which for a while were suspected of being the original hosts of SARS-CoV-2. (They have since been demoted to an intermediary role, if that.) “Something is wrong,” he concludes, “and not just for the pangolins.” Clearly, but what?

We almost get there. Spillovers occur, he writes, in “places where people are making incursions into natural landscapes, causing outsized disturbance to ecosystems.” Hear! Hear! But who are these “people”? And what exactly are they doing? And why? These questions seem worth asking if you are serious about preventing the future pandemics that Quammen feels certain are headed our way. But there his curiosity abandons him, perhaps because you cannot ask why “people” are making those incursions without investigating the roles of industrial agriculture and extractive industries like mining, and you can’t begin to understand those activities without examining the flows of capital that feed them, despite obvious and growing costs to ecosystems and to the well-being of every human on Earth. Those are questions that make powerful people uncomfortable, but that is precisely what must be done.

There is no reason in the world, or no good one anyway, why such lines of inquiry should fall outside the boundaries of “science.” As evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace has put it, “The scientific method only refers to the means by which hypotheses are tested. It doesn’t speak to the questions that we choose to ask.” By not asking the difficult ones, David Quammen has managed to do something almost unthinkable: He has written a thoroughly entertaining book about Covid, one in which you have to be reminded that, meanwhile, people were dying.